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Last Updated: Friday, 13 October 2006, 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK
Straw in Blackburn after veil row
Jack Straw
The ex-foreign secretary has said that he is sticking by his remarks
Jack Straw has met constituents for the first time since claiming that the covered faces of Muslim women can make community relations more difficult.

The Commons leader sparked a row by saying that when women wear veils to his Blackburn office, he asks if they would show their noses and mouths.

He told reporters he was surprised at the debate it had provoked, but hoped it would benefit all communities.

He was applauded outside the town hall, but a protest is expected on Saturday.

Mr Straw had said he felt full-face veils were a "visible statement of separation" - and was criticised by some Muslim groups.

The article sparked quite a bigger debate than I anticipated which left me surprised
Jack Straw

Speaking in Blackburn, which is about 30% Muslim, on Friday, he said he stuck by his comments and had held two meetings with local councillors and representatives of the Lancashire Council of Mosques.

"No-one today challenged my right to say what I did. This town is a big village, a large rumbustious family," he said.

"We have been working very hard in this multi-religious town to build on the achievements of the past and for the future."

The former foreign secretary added: "The article sparked quite a bigger debate than I anticipated which left me surprised. But it sparked off concern about parallel communities.

"We have to face up to the difficult challenge of achieving a greater understanding of different cultures."

Straw applauded

When the MP left the press conference, he received a round of applause and cheers from people gathered outside.

But a demonstration is planned outside his Saturday morning surgery at Bangor Street Community Centre.

Mr Straw has been backed by Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown in his right to raise the debate.

And the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, has claimed the way he did it was "completely right".

But the Islamic Human Rights Commission argued the MP was "selectively discriminating".




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